“Just Don’t Do It” – An Interview with Eric Dirnbach on Campus Anti-Sweatshop Organizing

From the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s the campus anti-sweatshop movement was one of the largest and most prominent student movements on college and university campuses in Canada and the United States. The campaign against sweatshops grew to be a major force within the broader anti-globalization movement.

Organizers targeted university administrations which had licensed university apparel with companies such as Nike, Fruit of the Loom, and Champion. They had some considerable success in forcing administrations to cancel contracts with sweatshop profiteers, and pressuring contractors to institute corporate social responsibility policies.

As Eric Dirnbach, a veteran of the campus anti-sweatshop movement, discusses below, lessons from the success and limits of the campus anti-sweatshop movement have relevance to those organizing on campuses today.

ClassRoom: Can you tell us about your involvement in campus anti-sweatshop movement?

Eric Dirnbach: I got involved in the movement in the mid-90’s when I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan and have been involved in some way ever since.  I recently wrote about some of my thoughts and experiences over the years here and last year some students at Michigan put together a great extensive summary of the campaign there as part of a class history project.

In the mid-90’s I had been involved in the local solidarity campaign in support of the workers during the Detroit News and Free Press strike and had also been active in the leadership of the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), our graduate student instructors union.  I had also recently joined the local Ann Arbor branch of the Socialist group Solidarity and we were looking for projects to work on around campus.

In the news at the time there were stories about Nike apparel sweatshops in Asia and the University had a large athletic sponsorship contract with Nike.  It seemed that there was a great opportunity to connect these issues and see if we could get the University to take a stand on the labor problems at Nike factories.  We felt that the University relationship was very important to Nike and that moving our administration to take some action on this would matter a lot to the company.  The major complication in this arrangement is that Nike and the other apparel brands generally didn’t own the factories but used a network of separate contractors. Thus the companies claimed they had no direct responsibility for the labor conditions there, even though everyone knew they had tremendous power in the relationship.

We formed the “Just Don’t Do It Coalition” in alliance with a number of other groups on campus.  Our early demands were for Nike to improve working conditions in the factories and require a living wage or else the University should cancel or not renew the Nike contract.  For the year or so where I was heavily involved, which was the 1997-1998 academic year, we mostly did educational activities around campus – holding rallies, bringing in speakers, and handing out flyers at football games and around campus.  We also met with the Athletic Director and spoke about the issue at a Board of Regents meeting.  I think we did good work that year, learning more about the issues, raising awareness on campus, meeting more supporters, and also connecting with the campaigns on other campuses.  Around that time we helped form the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) which became the national organization for this campaign.  We also connected with national groups working on this issue like Global Exchange, Campaign for Labor Rights and UNITE, the apparel and textile workers union.

In the Fall of 1998 I needed to step back since I was taking on the role of President of GEO during the year we were going to negotiate our new contract.  So luckily around that time I met with a group of students who had just done the AFL-CIO Union Summer program and talked with them about the sweatshop issue and we reformed the group as Students for Labor and Economic Equality (SOLE).  The group continued to organize and famously occupied the University’s President’s office for 50 hours in the Spring of 1999.  I was not involved in the occupation but spoke at the support rally outside and was really proud that the campaign had progressed so far.  More information about this action is here.

Afterwards the University agreed to move on improving the labor standards it would require of its vendors and also mandate the disclosure of factory names and locations.  Further negotiations and campaign pressure was necessary over time to continue to move the University on this issue, for example, to get it to join the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC).  This further activity was after I was no longer active in the group but the details are included in the Michigan anti-sweatshop history site.

CR: What did your organization look like? What sort of relationships did you have with other progressive groups, either on campus or in the broader community?

ED: During my time there the campaign wasn’t at first very well organized or strategically thought out.  I think there was the sense that we just needed to take some time to educate the community about the issue and develop more allies before we could take any next steps.  I think we prepared the groundwork for later actions that proved decisive.

The campaign was partly a coalition involving a number of supportive groups. Looking back at a news article from the time, these groups supported our big demonstration in October 1997 at the Michigan football game: Solidarity, the Huron Valley Green Party, the Coalition of Asian Social Work Students, the East Timor Action Coalition, the Free Mumia Coalition, UFCW Local 951, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and the Vietnamese Student Association. Some of these groups also continued to sponsor other events as the campaign continued.  But really most of the campaign work was done by a core group of student organizers, meeting weekly or biweekly, which might have been as large as a dozen at one point, with a faculty advisor who worked with us.  Later on when SOLE formed, the core group grew larger and they had about 30 folks involved in the 1999 occupation.

I think something we could have done better is more outreach and relationship building with the unions at the university and in the area.  A labor rights campaign like this is a good potential issue for a student-worker alliance and I think the USAS groups have done this kind of outreach in later years much better.

CR: What concrete victories were you able to achieve? What sorts of tactics did you find most effective? Least effective? How did you choose your “targets?”

ED: There were modest but important victories that brought the University of Michigan, along with many others, down the road toward addressing the significant sweatshop labor problems in the college apparel supply chain.  Our theory from the beginning was that universities as a whole have a lot of power in their relationships with Nike and the other major companies and that they could be made to assert that power to improve labor conditions. I think history and experience has shown that we were correct.  Over the next few years after our campaign more companies put together codes of conduct and disclosed their factory locations.  In general their stance changed from arguing that they had no responsibility for the factory labor conditions to acknowledging that they did.  

Over time this campaign also moved almost 200 colleges to join a collective organization, the WRC, which collects factory information, monitors the factories and forces a remediation of the labor problems.  The WRC has been the best and most effective independent factory monitor, and working with USAS, has provided great assistance to workers organizing in factories.  Having the WRC as a successful central institution in this campaign is great because it also maintains an important role for students at the center of this struggle, since students are part of the governance structure.  There are many instances where this student movement, through campus pressure, has continued to help factory workers organize and improve their working conditions. Examples include supporting the workers at the unionized, living wage Alta Gracia factory in the Dominican Republic, pressuring Fruit of the Loom to reopen a factory in Honduras and maintain a bargaining relationship with the union covering thousands of workers, and forcing Adidas to pay $1.8 million in severance to thousands of Indonesian workers at a supplier factory that shut down.

But it’s important to remember that we were really asking for some fairly modest action on the part of colleges.  We wanted them to require better labor conditions from their licensees and to join the WRC.  These are important wins but they aren’t particularly expensive obligations for colleges to take on and they haven’t dramatically changed the wages and working conditions in the industry as a whole or the power relationships between apparel brands, factories and workers.  The vast majority of the global industry remains committed to the sweatshop business model, but the student support and worker organizing has shown that improvements can be made.  This campaign over the years has been a real lesson for me in the power of solidarity.

As far as tactics and targets, the early educational efforts were essential to build broader support but disruptive tactics like the office occupation were essential.  The Michigan administration was the direct target, since we wanted to get them to change University policy on how they dealt with apparel licensees. College campuses are soft targets in that they are generally run by liberal administrators who would like to avoid conflict and are worried about the school’s public image.  Enough good organizing on campus can usually get some victory, but disruptive tactics will likely be necessary.  I saw this again and again at my union GEO where we were usually able to settle good contracts after conducting brief strikes.  The major apparel brands like Nike were the indirect targets since ultimately we wanted them to change their policies on the labor conditions in their supply chain factories.

CR: What would you consider to be some of the more important shortcomings, if any, to this model of organizing?

ED: I think we used our relatively privileged positions as students at the University in a strategic way to provide solidarity and try to force reforms in the factory system that supplied us with the branded college apparel. That seemed really important to me then and still does.  Our position as students informed the kind of organizing we could do.  For example, since we weren’t located at the classic workplace point of production, we couldn’t do traditional worker strikes or job disruptions.  Student workers on campus were in a position to do that and also the regular campus workers, but we didn’t really explore that possibility.  Students could also do class walkouts but again we weren’t at a level of strength to accomplish that in a meaningful way.  The building occupation was something that could be done effectively by a relatively small group.  

I’m not sure what the shortcomings were unless someone wanted to make the argument that students organizing is of secondary importance compared to workplace or community organizing.  I would say that organizing is important wherever someone is located.  Students have historically played a crucial role in protesting problems on campus and in society at large, whether it’s the anti-war or anti-apartheid movements, demanding a more inclusive curriculum, fighting racism, sexism or homophobia at school, or supporting labor struggles on campus.  There’s a lot of important organizing work that students can do during their time at school.  The list of student movement accomplishments over the past decades would be pretty impressive.

CR: Lastly, recently a number of student organizations have joined the Fight for $15 and Fairness movement, demanding minimum employment standards for all campus workers. What sorts of lessons can the struggles around anti-sweatshop organizing offer to these new organizations?

ED: That sounds like a really great campaign.  Colleges are good places for organizing because the potential for winning is great and also they should set high standards for working conditions.  Unfortunately many colleges have turned toward a neoliberal corporate model and it’s crucial for students and workers to fight back against that.

I think the lessons from the anti-sweatshop work are nothing too sophisticated and could apply to many kinds of campaigns.  Most important is to forge a strong coalition, involving students, campus workers and faculty, with a clear and winnable set of demands.  The campaign starts with education and outreach and escalates the pressure with disruptive actions which could include student walkouts and worker strikes.  If the administration sees a campaign that is growing, gaining confidence, taking action often, and increasing the disruption, they are likely to negotiate with the coalition.

Eric Dirnbach is a union researcher, corporate campaigner, labor activist and writer in New York City and a member of the IWW NYC General Membership Branch. He has published in Labor NotesNew Labor Forum, Public Seminar, Waging Nonviolence, Working USA and Z Magazine.  He can be found on Twitter at @EricDirnbach.